As Anzac Day comes round once more so we must prepare for the accompanying bombardment of nationalist myth-making. Our sense of national consciousness, so the story goes, was born on 25 April 1915. A nation was born on that day of death. The Anzacs fought for ‘freedom and democracy’. They died so that we might live.
Mythologies serve to comfort and console. They smooth contradictions and reduce historical complexity. They make meaning of events that might otherwise be senseless or unbearable.
In April 1915, the Anzacs were part of the force that invaded the Ottoman empire, at the behest of the British imperial government, to assist their imperial ally Tsarist Russia, in a military adventure that ended in defeat. The British allied forces lost 44,000 soldiers, the Ottomans around 85,000. More than 8000 Australians lost their lives on that foreign shore. Clearly much heavy mythologizing would be necessary to turn that inglorious episode into a national triumph.
Thus in later times it became a victory for Australian manhood, for mateship and nationhood, or in the words of our official historian, CEW Bean, Gallipoli witnessed the triumph of the ‘the mettle of the men’ themselves.
But why were the Australians there? ‘Can someone tell me what they died for’ wrote one puzzled Australian in the visitor book at Lone Pine in 2017. ‘What were you doing here?’ asked a Turkish visitor in the same book. The Anzacs were ‘deceived’ a Turkish tour guide told his fellow countrymen and women.
In a striking new film by Turkish film-maker Koken Ergun, called ‘Heroes’, we are offered a confrontingly foreign perspective on this familiar terrain, in a documentary about the 2017 commemorations that juxtaposes Turkish views – and histrionic, mournful, re-enactments – with the largely taciturn pilgrimage of backpackers from Australia and New Zealand touring with Contiki.
There is no narrative in the film – no voice-over telling us what to think – but a powerfully religious soundtrack, that immediately establishes the Muslim identity of Canakkale and the Turkish dedication to their ‘martyrs’, who fell defending their country from infidel invaders. Turkish views and voices are translated in sub-titles. ‘We will defeat whoever wants to invade our country’ reads the inscription of another Turkish visitor in the Lone Pine memorial book. ‘May this be a lesson to you’ writes yet another. Muslims were able to repel the invaders, Turkish guides explain, because of their faith.
The film features interviews with young descendants of the old enemies. Uniformed Turkish schoolchildren march in line chanting ’God is Greatest’. Some wear t-shirts proclaiming ‘Grandpa we are here’. Young Australians and New Zealanders climb up the road and are given ‘free time’ to wander through the cemeteries. Youthful tour guides, unsure of the historical details, constantly check their notes. One tells us about Simpson, the English ‘deserter’ and brave stretcher-bearer, who was tragically killed just a few weeks after arriving.
A young woman from New Zealand is interviewed when she pauses on her trek up the steep slope. She seems puzzled as to why the Anzacs came and why they persisted for eight months. ‘It makes no sense to me’. ‘Was it a mistake, joining the war’ asks her interviewer. She hesitates. No, they landed in the wrong place. And they were heroes, she adds, citing the example of ‘Simpson and his donkey’. ‘The Anzacs are like gods’ she explains. But then she is not sure. Maybe they were ‘more stupid, than brave’. At least they died somewhere beautiful. New Zealand is a beautiful country she tells her interlocutor. It is a sad interview.
The Turkish experience is registered as both intensely religious and nationalist, the two passions reinforcing each other. Dramatic re-enactments depict super-human courage and strength on the part of macho men and the painful sacrifice of tearful, brave, women. Women spectators are in tears. Turkish tour guides tell their fellow countrymen that though the Anzacs were deceived in invading Turkey, they can still learn from the Australians and New Zealanders, who travel thousands of miles across the ocean to honour their history. The government provides ships, he says, to enable them to come. Turks too should honour their proud history and long civilization, he insists, asking why they have to buy their mobile phones from South Korea. Meanwhile hundreds of Australasian back-packers are gathered under a large marquee, drinking coffee and eating, waiting for their coaches to ferry them back to Istanbul, while the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band plays ‘Singing in the Rain’. It is an odd choice of music.
Contradictions abound in the Anzac story. There is a further paradox. In Australian commemoration, New Zealanders – who formed a constituent part of the original ANZAC force – are perforce marginalized as the nation-building story takes centre stage. Yet we could learn more about our history if we attended to that historic formation – Australasia – that shared not only a military alliance – but the advanced democratic reforms – women’s political rights, compulsory arbitration, shorter working hours, a minimum wage, state ownership of utilities and public transport – that marked their distinctive nationhood forged in the years before World War 1.
Professor Marilyn Lake AO will be in discussion with film-maker Koken Ergun about his film ‘Heroes’ at ArtsSpace in Sydney at 6pm on Monday 23 April.
The film will screen at Artspace until 13 May.
The link to the public program is here: https://www.artspace.org.au/program/public-programs/2018/public-program-koken-ergun/